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Comment: June 2016


May 25, 2016
By Laura King


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It is taught in IMS 100 that all emergencies are local. But when rivers overflow, trains derail, or wildfires consume subdivisions, regional, provincial and federal assistance is critical.

In Alberta in May, as wildfire ravaged Fort McMurray, local firefighters responded, the emergency plan was activated, and Alberta Emergency Management Agency protocols were followed. Help came later – firefighters from British Columbia to Nova Scotia – albeit in a seemingly haphazard way.

Lessons learned from Kelowna and Slave Lake – about incident command, structural triage and resource management – were employed; Chief Jamie Coutts was among the first to help.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stayed away until the danger subsided, perhaps heeding the words of Brian Cornforth, who was the incident commander in High River, Alta., during the 2013 flood and admonished politicians for parachuting in at the height of the crisis, distracting responders and hijacking resources.

Two of Canada’s remaining four HUSAR teams – based in Calgary and Brandon, Man. – were sent to Fort Mac; interestingly, the assignment was the Calgary team’s first full deployment, notably to a wildfire-stricken community despite the team’s mandate of specialized search and rescue.

Ottawa, while matching record Red Cross donations, sent a Hercules and helicopters to help with evacuations, water bombers, 3,000 cots, generators and personal living supplies.

All this happened during Emergency Preparedness Week, May 1-7. The theme for 2016: Plan. Prepare. Be Aware. In northern Alberta, chiefs have done just that – developed an emergency resourcing agreement, born of a wildfire that threatened High Level last year, to simplify the process of requesting resources from other departments.

Even after the Slave Lake fire in 2011, the province has yet to develop a municipal resourcing inventory, although the Calgary Emergency Management Agency recently set up a portal for that purpose. Peace region chiefs, however, have established their own system along with the resourcing agreement, relying on each for support, equipment and manpower, because no one else is coming – no national wildfire response teams, for example – and even if people are coming, they’re not coming quickly.

When I wrote this on May 16, there were 114 wildfires burning in Ontario and the western provinces.

Three years after Lac-Megantic, Transport Canada is developing a plan to help responders deal with dangerous-goods incidents (see page 18).

I won’t debate climate change; what’s certain is that Alberta’s boreal forest is ripe to burn. As Coutts has said, watch the conditions, not the calendar. Four years after Slave Lake, fire chiefs have planned, are prepared, and are aware that in the absence of a true national response plan, all emergencies are, indeed, local.


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